By Yael Eckstein/JNS.org
I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. There I was, an Orthodox Israeli Jew, at a 500-year-old synagogue in Marrakesh, distributing food parcels to Muslims for Ramadan, representing the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship) on behalf of millions of Christians in the U.S. and worldwide.
It just didn’t make sense. It seemed too good to be true. But as I quickly learned, it was just another day in mystical Morocco, a country that defies norms, defines tolerance and is home to a dwindling population of 2,500 Jews.
Though Morocco is a Muslim country, the bellboy at my hotel told me with a loving smile, Jews were actually in Morocco 600 years before Muslims—when they were sent out of Jerusalem following the destruction of the First Temple.
“This is your home,” the bellboy said, while pointing to a picture on the wall of the Atlas Mountains. “Your people were here before mine.”
This respectful attitude was the prevailing sentiment in my communications with every Muslim I met during my stay. Moroccans are genuine in their respect for the Jewish people, love for Moroccan Jews, and awe for the holy rabbis who walked their streets and are buried in the Jewish cemetery. I nearly cried when I saw how well the locals preserve the Jewish cemetery.
“Why do you treat the Jews so well?” I asked a Muslim teenager who works for an organization called Mimouna, whose members are Muslim youths passionate about spreading Jewish history. Mimouna made history by starting a Jewish studies program at a Moroccan Arab university, along with the Arab world’s only Holocaust education program.
“Why wouldn’t we treat them well?” he responded.
Indeed, it is illogical for local Muslims to suddenly turn on native Jews who have lived in their country for thousands of years. But we live in an illogical world. Morocco is one of the few places where Christians, Muslims and Jews coexist in peace and mutual respect. Why?
One night I attended a Ramadan fast-breaking event—organized by the inspiring local Chabad rabbi at an Orthodox synagogue. Dozens of Jews and Muslims gathered to celebrate. King Mohammed VI’s representative for the entire Marrakesh region also attended. He sent blessings from the king to the Jewish community and closed his eyes with intent—and answered “amen”—when the Chabad rabbi said the traditional Jewish prayer for kings.
Why are Jews in Morocco treated so well? Simply put, it’s because of the king. During World War II, when the Nazis asked the king of Morocco to put together a list of Jews in his country, he boldly answered, “We don’t have Jews, we have Moroccans,” and refused to comply.
Today’s king, Mohammed VI, is the grandson of King Mohammed V, who protected his country’s 265,000 Jews. Like his grandfather, Mohammed VI believes Jews are just as Moroccan—and just as important—as Muslims, Christians and everyone else. If anyone in Morocco messes with Jews, they are messing with the king.
Many project that in a decade, there won’t be any Jews left in Morocco. Most of the Moroccan grandmothers who read Psalms all day have moved to Israel. Moroccan Jewish youths have largely moved abroad. The remaining Jews are the gems of ancient times.
What legacy do Jews want to leave in Morocco? What pillars do Jews want to set up in Morocco that will carry on long after there are no Jews left?
After my four-day journey representing Christian and Jewish supporters of The Fellowship, I deeply understand why it’s so important that our organization partnered with Chabad and Mimouna to distribute thousands of food parcels from the country’s ancient synagogues to local Muslims for Ramadan. It is clear to me why we must set up a Jewish information center in central Marrakesh and make sure the Jewish cemetery will keep being preserved by local Muslims.
I realize how critical it is that we also continue to distribute food parcels to poor Jews on a monthly basis, so they aren’t neglected or looked at as beggars, but rather serve as a shining example of the fact that all Jews, Christians and Muslims are responsible to look out for one another.
In a country that lives on ancient spiritual stories of holy men and women who once walked its streets, this is our final opportunity to leave an eternal legacy on behalf of the millions of Moroccan Jews who came before us.
What legacy should we leave? That the Jewish people came in peace, left in peace and were only known for peace. This is what it means to live in the vision of God.
Yael Eckstein is the senior vice president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship). She is the daughter of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, The Fellowship’s founder and president.